Designing to Creativity

Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower or in the bathroom. I'll be working on a problem in my head ad nauseum. I'll step away from the work out of frustration. In the middle of a walk outside or a meal, suddenly and without much effort, the solution to my problem will come to me, and I find myself reaching for my phone or a post-it note to capture the idea before it slips away.

Designing to this type of creativity has come into vogue in the last few years as technology has transformed what becomes possible for thinking and learning. Proponents of planned creative spaces argue for open designs that encourage staff intersections and interactions - literally, cross-pollinating around the water cooler. Leisure breaks are quite common on the campuses of industry giants, where playground slides and sandboxes are common fare in tech company offices and volleyball games and ping pong tables are highly encouraged as a means of stepping away from the work. Recently, Google piqued our interest with its intriguing floating barges billed as "interactive spaces where people can learn about new technology."

The rituals and planned spaces of innovators is an interesting contrast to learning environments, like the public-school classroom, and the informal learning spaces of libraries and museums. The Children's Creativity Museum, for example, started as a nonprofit museum specifically focused on digital media art and technology. When we expanded our target age range to include preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) and re-focused on the concept of creativity rather than strictly on the media, how we thought about our experience shifted: How are we teaching creativity as a skill that can be learned? Where are we intentionally planning in opportunities for people to collaborate and share their work? What role does digital technology play in the user experience?

Part of approaching these questions starts with making a distinction between creative thinking and creativity. Creative thinking is arguably a narrower and more utilitarian perspective on creativity. It is a focus on what creativity gets us, or more precisely, what long-term economic benefits creativity provides. We advocate for creative thinking because we can make strong correlations between creative problem-solving and product innovations. We can make a case for creative thinking, because we can zero in on specific skills and then translate those skills into a business's long-term sustainability and growth potential.

Creativity is broader, messier and less linear. That there is no common definition for creativity underscores the potential it has to change how we think and learn. The Children's Creativity Museum focuses on providing visitors with an open-ended exploration of creativity through a variety of low and high-tech media. We want kids to discover and define for themselves what creativity is.

And we're very intentional about creating as much space as possible. In our Imagination Lab, we designed our Dream It! exhibit as an area where parents can just plop onto bean bags and read books with their kids. It is an area free of technology. It is not because we think technology gets in the way of creativity. Rather, it is that we understand that taking a break from the hyperstimulation of technology provides the space for the creative process to unfold.

Paying just as much attention to how we create space, as we do about which innovative technology tool or app, is important to how we think about creativity. Recent neuroscientific research suggests that our more developed thinking brain - what we have historically understood to be the "left brain" that comes up with logic and ideas and which is encouraged/privileged by how we teach in the classroom - becomes overwhelmed by too much stimulation. To encourage creativity, then, becomes about room for the older intuitive brain to come forward and about mindfulness and quiet moments that give rise to inspiration. It's about creating enough space for us to achieve the optimum state of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." Ideas are born of an organic creative process, not because you have the perfectly structured environment.

It really isn't about whether or not we have the most recent version of a desktop design program, nor is about whether desks and chairs are situated with people facing each other. It's about environments and practices that give us enough space to draw new connections between disparate ideas, to bounce concepts we're toying with off of our colleagues, and to play around and test out new ideas. It's about designing to the creative process, rather than what we're able to extract from that process.